Olympic Gold Medalist and Cancer Survivor Scott Hamilton on the Promise of Better Days After Hardship

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Scott Hamilton is known for winning the gold medal in figure skating for the United States at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. But getting to that point? Well, that took a lot of stumbles and falls. In fact, Scott estimates that he has fallen down on the ice a minimum of 41,600 times. The life lesson he took from those falls is that you always have to get up again if you want to succeed. And while that attitude was important in his skating career, it became even more vital during his battles with cancer and three brain tumors.

In order to help others adopt a spirit of optimism in the face of hardship, as well as encourage a sense of faith in their lives, Scott has now created a website and podcast called “Live Your Days,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).

As a child, Scott suffered from low self-esteem for various reasons. He was shorter than all his classmates and wasn’t growing; he endured numerous hospital stays due to a mystery illness that left him feeling sick much of the time; and he was bullied because he was adopted.

After four years of trying to determine his illness, one doctor finally told Scott’s parents, “We can’t figure this thing out, but I can give you some real solid advice, and that’s go home and live a normal life.”

Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton were exhausted from the nonstop caretaking, so they took the advice of their family physician, who recommended they send Scott to ice skating lessons every Saturday morning at a new facility nearby. Not only did it give the couple some necessary downtime, it exposed Scott to a talent he didn’t know he had.

Scott said, “A few weeks later, I realized that I could skate as well as the best athletes in my grade. For the first time, I had self-esteem, this incredible sense of identity and power. I was just like, ‘Give me more of that. I want to be on the ice all the time!’ And so I skated all the time, and my health started to improve miraculously, and I was able to go on a big, huge adventure with my skating.”

Scott’s mother was his greatest champion throughout his childhood and teen years. She also served as a model of optimism, even after she was diagnosed with cancer when Scott was a sophomore in high school. He recalled her breaking the news to the family and trying to put a positive spin on everything, like saying that chemo was finally allowing her to lose the weight she wanted.

“She was always finding the best side of everything,” Scott said, “and I understood that was a conscious choice on her part. She fought [cancer] for two years and then succumbed. And it was like, how do I live without her? It just hit me in the face…[But] I was able to mourn her in the best way possible: by trying to become the person that she always thought I could be. It was 43 years ago that I lost her, and every single day, I think about her [and] talk about her. And when I was diagnosed with cancer, it was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ [So I made the rule that] no one was allowed in my room unless they made me laugh. After each challenging, devastating episode, I learned that there’s the opportunity for something spectacular on the other side. And so it just allows you to endure whatever your condition is now, knowing that there’s a promise of a better day.”

Scott hopes that the children’s book he wrote, “Fritzy Finds a Hat,” helps kids in similar situations focus on better days because the story was inspired by his experience with his mom. Fritzy is a boy whose mother is undergoing chemo and needs a hat to wear after she loses her hair. He embarks on a quest to find her the perfect one to make her feel better. The simple story, illustrated by country music singer Brad Paisley, presents “the idea that children have power. Children have the ability to help their parents through problems and to have an identity in the family structure, doing something profound to help their parents when they’re facing a struggle.”

Though Scott faces his struggles with a spirit of Christian hope, he didn’t always have that firm grounding. He felt he had a guardian angel looking out for him, but he didn’t understand the Bible when he first picked it up to read it.

“One day,” recalled Scott, “I went on a walk, and I sat and opened my heart to allow God in because I didn’t know how to reach Him. I was hoping He would reach me, you know?…When I was up against [tough times], I would pray. I didn’t know how I was praying or who I was praying to. Anytime I had a problem, if I verbalized it, that solution would come to me.”

After meeting and dating Tracie, the woman who would become his wife, Scott’s spiritual seeking found both a direction and a destination. One day, Tracie asked him, “Where are you in your relationship with Jesus Christ?” Scott replied, “Where do you want me to be?”

Since they both realized they wanted their relationship to move forward, Tracie introduced Scott to her minister, who recommended that Scott read the Bible again, but this time focus on how God interacted with the people in its stories. That became the key to Scott’s new understanding of Scripture.

“Then when I got to the red letters in the New Testament,” he explained, “I understood that every single thing I need to know was given to me by Jesus. Every way of solving a problem, every way of redeeming a relationship, every way of rising above any affliction. So when I talk about [my podcast] Live Your Days, I can’t do it without a faith element. I look at it as the four legs of a chair. It’s got the four pillars of the foundation of our lives. 1) The physical, we’ve got to be healthy. 2) Emotional, we’ve got to feel good about ourselves. 3) Intellectual, we’ve got to be interested in growing and our understanding of who we are in the world and how we fit in it. 4) And then the last piece is the Spirit…If any one of those four legs are missing, you’re probably going to fall down.”

Scott then shared a story of a watershed moment which revealed to him how much he truly relies on his faith: “A couple of Memorial Days ago, I felt ill suddenly. I got to the point where no one could figure out what was wrong with me, but I could not stay awake. I felt my life force slipping away…I knew I was going to die and I was 100% comfortable with that. I was like, ‘Thank you.’ What a gift that was to understand that when I get to the end of these days, I’m going to be okay, and I’ll be able to accept it and to embrace it, because of what I’ve learned about who I am in Christ. So, I want everybody to have that.”

Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of Scott’s life now. And though he was bullied as a child for being adopted, he has come to realize the beauty of what his parents did for him.

He said, “Being adopted is a huge part of my identity. I was loved, unconditionally, sacrificially loved – that experience of seeing my mom and dad leverage everything they had to get me the healthcare I needed when I was little, and then put me in skating almost at their own financial ruin. I was an adopted child, I wasn’t their birth child, and it taught me that it doesn’t matter if you’re biologically a child or if you are chosen. To be in a family, it’s a treasured gift.”

Scott and Tracie eventually started their own family, and it was momentous. Scott said, “When my son [Aidan] was born and I looked into his eyes, I was looking into flesh of my own flesh for the very first time ever. It was powerful.”

After Scott’s bout with testicular cancer and a pituitary brain tumor, he and Tracie didn’t think having another baby was very likely. Nevertheless, they had another son named Maxx, who they consider a miracle.

Living a life grounded in gratitude also motivates you to be a giving person, so Scott and Tracie embarked on their own adoption journey – though that wasn’t their original intent. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Tracie began volunteering with a U.S. nonprofit that helped the people there.

The nonprofit’s office had a Christmas tree set up with pictures of the children they planned to help hanging as the ornaments. Aidan was drawn to the photo of a boy named Jean Paul because of his smile. He recorded a video for Jean Paul before Tracie made the trip to Haiti. When she arrived there, she found Jean Paul, as well as his sister Evelyne, to show him the video. Afterwards, the two kids did not leave her side. And during the other 28 trips Tracie made to Haiti, the kids always returned to her side.

Tracie felt God calling her to adopt these children, and Scott was on board with the decision. Though the couple faced some challenges due to the cultural differences between the U.S. and Haiti, Scott feels blessed that he and Tracie are able to be loving parents to these two wonderful kids.

Ultimately, Scott’s focus is on giving back. He created the Scott Hamilton Cares Foundation to fund research for cancer treatment options. He wrote a book called “Finish First” to share insights about the road to success personally and professionally. And he hopes that his “Live Your Days” podcast encourages viewers to live their lives to the fullest.

Scott said, “Since I started the whole Live Your Days platform, there’s been days where the world just comes at me…It’s really wild that the more you put out something on building joy, building gratitude, building ownership of your life, the more that the forces of this world try to pull the rug out from underneath you. You know, my brain tumor started to grow back a little bit, and we’re keeping an eye on it still. [But] I’m not going to just sit down and think about that thing all day long. I have options, and if I have to endure another episode of whatever, I will. I’m still here, and I’m still fighting and I’m still craving every opportunity to live joyfully and productively.”

(To listen to my two-part interview with Scott Hamilton, click on the podcast links):

Scott Hamilton interview, part 1 – Christopher Closeup
1) Dolly Parton, and 2) Scott Hamilton, part 2 interviews – Christopher Closeup